Terri Freeman had never visited the National Civil Rights Museum before coming to Memphis to interview for the museum’s top job in 2014 and that first visit was a powerful one. “It instilled a sense of pride in the human spirit and how we can overcome the negative with love, courage and tenacity,” says Terri, who became president of the museum in November 2014. The Chicago native attended the University of Dayton, moving on to graduate school for a Master’s of Arts in Organizational Communications Management from Howard University in Washington. An only child, Terri calls her family “priority one;” she is married to Dr. Bowyer Freeman (the youngest of 12 children!) and they have three girls and a new grand baby. “Everything they say about grand parenting is true,” says Terri. “I’m also blessed to have my mom with me and she volunteers at the museum three days per week. With God’s grace, she will be 80 years young in October.” On October 20, 2016, the National Civil Rights Museum presents the 25th anniversary of the Freedom Awards, which honor individuals who have made a great global impact. This year’s honorees include WNBA champion and activist Swin Cash, Yemeni human rights activist and Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman and journalist Soledad O’Brien, among others.
We’re thrilled to introduce you to Terri Freeman, today’s FACE of Memphis!
Describe your early career. Where did you work and what were your jobs?
I was blessed to have a grandfather who saved for my undergraduate and graduate college tuition. So, I graduated from two private universities debt free. His requirement was that I pay for my living expenses, so I worked full time while going to graduate school full time. I worked at the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates administrative offices. I supervised the administrative staff. The job provided me with flexibility I needed to get to my classes at Howard, which usually started around 4:30 p.m.
After getting my M.A., I almost immediately was hired by Freddie Mac, which at that time was known as the Mortgage Corporation. I had a wonderful career at Freddie. I started as an editorial assistant and, at the end of my 13-year tenure with the company, I was vice president of community relations and executive director of the Freddie Mac Foundation.
I left Freddie in 1986 and accepted the position of president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital region. We were a public foundation serving the D.C., Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland regions.
Describe your job at the Community Foundation. Is there a program or an initiative you oversaw of which you are the most proud?
I think my most significant work was done during times of crisis. Survivors’ Fund was a $25 million fund that we operated to support the survivors of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. The Neighbors in Need fund was established after the 2008 market crash and the beginning of the Great Recession to provide safety net support to residents of the region. And the Katrina Helping Hands Fund was established to support families that relocated to the D.C. region following Hurricane Katrina. I’m very proud of the work the Foundation was able to accomplish.
Do you see similarities in the issues facing Memphians and those faced by residents of the District of Columbia?
I see similarities for all low-income urban communities. The main difference I see between D.C. and Memphis is the ratio of wealth to poverty. The D.C. region is very wealthy, surrounded by at least four of the wealthiest communities in the nation, and the number of individuals and families facing inter-generational poverty is smaller. Memphis is similarly situated as the urban center surrounded by many commuting suburbs but they are not as wealthy and the level of inter-generational poverty is significantly higher. That said, Memphians are far more generous than Washingtonians, giving approximately 4% to nonprofit organizations. But issues facing education equality, workforce development, homelessness and health disparities exist in both communities to far too great a degree.
What was your first impression upon visiting the National Civil Rights Museum?
I think my response was that of the typical visitor — I was overwhelmed by the amount of information, impressed with the quality of the information and just how well the story was told. I was emotionally moved by the power of place and recognizing the history that happened where I was standing. And finally, it instilled a sense of pride in the human spirit and how we can overcome the negative with love, courage and tenacity.
Do you have a favorite exhibit, story or image from the museum’s collection?
If I’m forced to pick, I think the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides are my favorite simply because they were youth-led movements that demonstrate the power of organization and the bond humans can have when they see each other as all being a part of the human race.
What are your hobbies and how do you unwind?
Good question! I like to read and mostly fiction. I have to deal with a lot of heavy material in my day-to-day, so I choose to read novels for pleasure. I also used to exercise quite a bit. I’ve really fallen off the wagon but I’m trying to get back into it. More recently, traveling to see my grand baby is always fun!
Where’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they come to visit you in Memphis?
The National Civil Rights Museum, of course, followed by barbecue at One & Only, my personal favorite. And we like to take people to house watch. The architecture here is so beautiful.
What’s your second favorite Memphis attraction and why?
Probably Stax. I’m a huge music lover and I like almost every genre — from R&B to Broadway show tunes. But I also love the outdoors, so I like the riverfront; and the few times I’ve walked the Greenline, it has been great.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …
Invisibility. I’d like to know who people really are. Some people send their “representative” to the public arena as opposed to being who they really are. I’m not ashamed of saying I’d like to be a fly on the wall.
What one word describes you?
Pragmatic. As much as I’d like to be an optimist, I can’t help but be an unwavering realist.
What inspires you?
I think I’m inspired by young people — children through Millennials. I love their innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. I love the innocence of children and the can-do attitude of Millennials. They also have a sense of altruism that I respect.
What’s your best piece of advice for others?
Strong communication skills are an absolute must if you want to be successful. You need to know how to write, not text. And you need to have strong public speaking skills. And being kind is always a plus.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without excluding faith, family and friends?
My iPhone because of my music, a great glass of wine (red, white or rosé; I’m not picky) and DSW! Need I say more?
Thanks to Micki Martin for the beautiful photographs of Terri at the National Civil Rights Museum.
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